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Ulema's Work in Guiding the Archipelago

The sounds of shalawat [prayers for Prophet Muhammad] reverberated from the meunasah (little mosque) in Gampong Ruyung village, Mesjid Raya district, Aceh Besar, Aceh, on Thursday (12/1/2017). That day, a Maulid Nabi Muhammad (celebration of Prophet Muhammad's birth) event was held at the village. Local ulema or clerics and people welcomed anyone and everyone passing through in front of the meunasah to stop by and enjoy the meals together.

Baiturrahman Grand Mosque complex,  Banda Aceh on Tuesday (31/1/2017). The Baiturrahman Grand Mosque is a symbol of the struggle of the Acehnese people against colonialism. The mosque was a symbol of the major role taken by Aceh's ulemas to ignite the spirit of the people and the community to fight against the invaders.
KOMPAS/ADRIAN FAJRIANSYAHBaiturrahman Grand Mosque complex, Banda Aceh on Tuesday (31/1/2017). The Baiturrahman Grand Mosque is a symbol of the struggle of the Acehnese people against colonialism. The mosque was a symbol of the major role taken by Aceh's ulemas to ignite the spirit of the people and the community to fight against the invaders.

The celebration is a deep-rooted tradition, in which local clerics and commoners work together to prepare the meals.

During the Aceh War, meunasah in all villages served as places to arrange battle strategies. This was done by Syeikh Muhammad Saman Tiro or Teungku Cik di Tiro Muhammad Saman, among others. Inside a meunasah in 1889, he wrote a letter to local uleebalang (village commanders) and keuchik (village chiefs) to return to the battlefield and defend the nation.

The letter was written as some uleebalang and keuchik started to take the side of the Dutch forces during the war. This occurred after the Dutch successfully took over the palace of the Aceh sultanate and weakened the sultan's military power in its aggression in 1873.

This condition forced clerics in Aceh, who had originally served as palace advisors, to lead community groups in fighting against the Dutch.

In April 1874, Tuanku Hasyim, Panglima Polem, Teuku Panglima Duapuluh Enam and Sri Setia Ulama announced that the clerics in Aceh Besar had agreed to continue the fight. At the same time, Teungku Imum Lueng Bata and Teuku Chik Lamnga started to attack Meuraxa in Banda Aceh. However, as they were overpowered in weaponry, food supplies and the number of soldiers, their forces were easily repelled.

Reflecting from that experience, local grand clerics decided to send Teungku Chik di Tiro Muhammad Saman to inflame the spirit of struggle among Aceh people. Hikayat Prang Sabil, a book of tales with its wealth of meanings and religious message, became the main device in rekindling the people's fighting spirit against colonial forces.

In an excerpt of Hikayat Prang Sabil in the book Perang Kolonial Belanda di Aceh ("The Battles of Dutch Colonialists in Aceh") published by the Aceh Documentation and Information Center, there are three duties that the people should do to defend their religion. These three duties are belief in the Creator, prayers and fighting against the Dutch.

In order to optimize the dissemination of this tale, Teungku Chik di Tiro and the clerics utilized meunasah and dayah (Islamic boarding schools) in local villages.

The Dutch forces began to suspect something was amiss. In 1882, clerics and resistance leaders were hunted down and books were burnt. The Dutch governor announced that money would be given in exchange for arrested clerics, dead or alive.

The people, however, were unfazed by this show of power. They kept reading the books in hiding. Clerics like Teungku Cik di Tiro intensified their guerilla warfare. At the same time, they also launched diplomatic efforts through correspondence with the Dutch leaders and defecting uleebalang.

JA Kruyt in his book De Atjeh Oorlog wrote that the clerics encouraged local aristocrats and commoners to make donations to fund the war against the Dutch. The collected donation was deemed holy rights that can be used to purchase weapons, logistics and create defenses.


The undying spirit of Aceh warriors cornered the Dutch forces. Thousands of their soldiers died and 200 million florins, equal to Rp 1.4 trillion (US$104.9 million) today, were spent between 1873 and 1891. Amidst all the chaos, Dutch scholar Snouck Hurgronje was sent to research and map the power of Aceh forces in 1891.

From Hurgronje's report, which was later turned into a book titled De Atjehers, it was known that the fighting spirit of Aceh people was centered on their clerics and religious teachings. "What the Dutch forces faced in Aceh was neither a political party nor bands or rogue marauders, but it was a people's party. As long as it is about Aceh, for better or worse, the people is united and organized by the clerics," Hurgronje wrote.

Ar-Raniry State Islamic University professor of adab and humanities faculty Misri Abdul Muchsin said that, apart from religion, clerics have an important role and influence over the people due to their intelligence that was seen to be above that of commoners. The unpredictable war strategy was also the result of their ingenuity.

"Whatever the clerics said, the people and the local government would obey. Beyond simply inciting hatred toward the enemy and stirring the people's fighting spirit, the clerics also fostered a deep love towards the religion and the nation," he said.

In other words, the clerics used their knowledge to develop a positive spirit for the nation's unity. This was why their influence did not die down even after the Aceh War ended. Their words and deeds are still seen as exemplary.

Teuku Ibrahim Alfian put this all into a book titled Wajah Aceh dalam Lintasan Sejarah, Sepak Terjang Ulama Setelah Proklamasi Kemerdekaan Indonesia ("Aceh in the Sweep of History, the Actions of Ulama After the Proclamation of Indonesian Independence"). Through a Cleric's Edict, four grand clerics, namely Teungku Haji Hasan Krueng Kale, Teungku M Daud Beureueh, Teungku Haji Ja'far Sidik Lamjabat and Tengku Haji Hasballah Indrapuri pledged their allegiance to the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia in October 1945. In the edict, it was said that all efforts conducted to maintain the Republic of Indonesia would be deemed as holy war. In the edict's closing, the clerics urged all Aceh people to obey all orders of the national leaders for the sake of the safety of the homeland, the religion and the nation.

Syiah Kuala University faculty of law sociologist Saleh Sjafei said in Banda Aceh that clerics in the past were seen as exemplar figures as their deeds matched their words and they were trustworthy and reliable. The people highly respected them. This was the superiority of the clerics of the past, in that they could unite the people to love the nation.

Outside Aceh, the role of clerics also had deep roots in other regions across in Indonesia. In Java, for instance, the struggles of Sunan Gunung Jati, one of the Wali Songo (Nine Holy Preachers), in fighting the Portuguese was one example. Ahmad Dahlan and Hasyim Asyari also succeeded in influencing and mobilizing the people through education to fight colonial powers.

Without the involvement of clerics in the past, Indonesia's independence might not have been realized. Their love for the homeland was an example that continues to be relevant amidst the various problems in the nation today.



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